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What It's Like to Visit Walt Disney World as an Adult

Two decades after her last visit, a thirtysomething returns to Walt Disney World, Florida, with her parents.

Walt Disney World

It was March Break, 1993, and my family was on hour 19 of our annual 20-hour drive from Toronto to Orlando. In the back of our minivan, my six-year-old brother kicked my seat and threw travel checkers at my head. I ignored him and quietly panicked about something – my homework, if the dog was having fun at his kennel, the intruders that would almost certainly burgle our house. As our wiggly restlessness intensified, we nagged our parents (shrilly, incessantly) about when we’d get there. My mom struggled with the massive foldable map on her lap, while my dad’s exasperated voice joined the chorus. “Is it this exit or the next? Do I need to get left?”

Then we saw it: the road sign directing us to our destination. We’d taken this trip for as long as I could remember, and every year, this was the moment the car fell silent. We breezed down the road leading up to the grand entrance, a Floridian Arc de Triomphe that read WALT DISNEY WORLD in massive, candy-coloured print. As we approached, my brother and I chanted “Florida, Florida, Florida,” and then, passing through the arch, “Disney World!!!”

The next five days were both an exhaustingly ritualized checklist of family traditions and a balm for our prickly dynamics. Walt Disney World was a place outside of our regular lives where my little brother and I – gleefully ignorant of the sweaty teens inside the Chip and Dale costumes, or the indignity of waiting two hours for an eight-minute cruise through an ersatz Caribbean port town – would stop our squabbling and unite over a shared determination to hit every attraction. My parents, temporarily relieved of their obligation to keep us entertained and peaceful, were relaxed and carefree. Our family was never cheerier than when we were walking down one of those fake Main Street sidewalks.

Walt Disney World

But as my brother and I entered our surly teens, we weaned ourselves off the Disney habit, choosing to stay home while our parents traipsed off to elegant destinations in Europe and California. By the time we moved out a few years later, we’d virtually stopped spending time together as a family: Jobs, friends and general twentysomething self-absorption kept my brother and me from visiting home too often, and hardly ever at the same time. Then, last year, our parents had an idea. They were in their mid-sixties, occupying that glorious limbo between retirement and senescence. My brother and I were in our early thirties, single and steady in our careers. They figured there was no better time to recapture the magic – and invited us on an all-expenses-paid trip back to the Happiest Place on Earth.

This time around, we adjusted our rituals to make the trip easier on my parents’ aging bodies. Instead of booking a cramped motel room, we found a sprawling three-bedroom Airbnb with a full kitchen and terrace. Instead of consulting The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World, we planned the most efficient routes on Google Maps. The parking lots there are as big as some small American towns, and in the old days, when my parents had good knees and my brother and I had boundless energy, we’d walk a kilometre to a tram that drove us to a monorail that zipped us to the gates of the park. This time, they sprang for preferred parking.

Walt Disney World

As we entered the Magic Kingdom, I took in Cinderella’s turreted castle, the monorail whooshing overhead, a marching band in Music Man cosplay tooting “Be Our Guest.” We seemed to be the only people not wearing Mickey ears, which now came in an infinite number of styles: ears decorated like flower crowns, like bridal tiaras, like Stormtrooper helmets. Some attractions had been sprinkled with technological fairy dust – the Haunted Mansion had upgraded its ghost holograms; Epcot had a fancy new Frozen ride – but otherwise, little had changed. For the next few days, I was utterly drunk on Disney.

The best parts ended up being the hours spent waiting in line, where we took the opportunity to spackle our family foundation. We discussed politics (Trump’s motorcade had passed us on the highway), my dad and I quizzed each other on Presidential trivia (a niche Landau sport) and I talked to my brother about his adventures as a photographer. Though we still bickered – I always have to remember to curb my sarcasm – I saw he was no longer the nattering, destructive little hellion I tried to avoid as a kid, but a thoughtful and industrious grown-up.

Walt Disney World

The four of us also luxuriated in nostalgia, touring through our ultra-specific family memories. My mom pointed out the fountain where they’d taken a photograph of me (five years old, lopsided haircut) that hangs in their living room. They teased me about Big Thunder Mountain, the children’s roller coaster that scared me so much as a kid that I tried to jump off. At Epcot, we lined up three times for Spaceship Earth, set inside the iconic geodesic golf ball at the entrance to the park. It’s the dorkiest attraction at Disney, and my all-time favourite: a leisurely trip through animatronic tableaux that illustrate the history of human communication. I giddily watched the scenes pass by, kept my arms and legs inside the vehicle and felt like I was eight years old again.

My parents seemed to be living out their YOLO retirement fantasies, blithely shelling out for every ridiculously overpriced indulgence they used to shun when we were kids. At Epcot World Showcase, we had dinner at the restaurant inside the Mexico pavilion, where the outside looks like a Mayan pyramid and the inside like a starlit town overlooking a river. There are vendors selling piñatas and sombreros, and a boat ride that takes you past a prop volcano. Historically, our parents never let us eat there, but this time they went for it, and the experience was pure mariachi magic.

Walt Disney World

At one point, my dad even pulled a $20 bill out of his shirt pocket and offered it to me. “For spending money,” he said sweetly, momentarily forgetting that I was a grown woman. There were many times on that trip when I forgot too, relying on my family for the kind of comfort I used to take for granted. Once, we were in line for a faux-paragliding ride, sitting on the floor of a loading area while waiting for the endless horde of people to inch forward. My dad noticed me obsessively checking my work e-mail to make sure I hadn’t screwed something up before I left. He slumped down beside me. “When I was your age, I used to get just as anxious about missing work,” he told me. “It’ll be there when you get back.”

My mom, unprompted, gave me a hug and my muscles instantly relaxed. There was something wonderful about relinquishing my adulthood for a few days, about acting like a kid and letting my parents dote on me. Walt Disney World itself may be a shimmering simulacrum, but our happiness was real. So in the fall, we’re taking another vacation together, this time to Paris and Amsterdam. I’m pushing for a day trip to Euro Disney.